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Meditation retreat at a forest monastery

Photo by Fong Kin Houng

I want to live like animals, careless and free like animals. I want to live. I want to run through the jungle the wind in my hair and the sand at my feet…” the song went on and on, set on repeat mode, as I cleaned up my dusty room the moment I arrived from my 5-day meditation retreat; the same way I listen to it now while I write. It has been over 2 years since I went up to Ubon Ratchathani, northern Thailand to meditate at Wat Pah Nanachat – International Forest Monastery yet I can still remember how I felt then. It takes 10 hours to travel by train to Ubon Ratchathani so I decided to take the evening train to reach there in time for breakfast. That way, I can eat at the temple for free and slid myself into their daily routine.

I emailed the monastery to ask for permission to stay there and gave them my schedule. I was surprised at the swift reply. The train from Bangkok has an air-conditioned cabin with bed. I brought a book to read in case I can’t sleep. After a few pages into the world of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, I closed the book and looked out the window, gazed at the starry sky. I used to use the pseudonym stargazer in my teenage years. The noisy sound of the train gradually became a lullaby as I fell into a deep slumber. I woke up before sunrise and was amazed at the view when I looked out the window. We were passing along a farm, then thick bushes, then a barren land; such beautiful greenery of plants and trees. I was enveloped with calmness and contentment at the sight of the simple and peaceful life at the countryside. I silently gave a prayer of thanks.

The monastery is surrounded with quotations like this
Photo by ธีรรัฐ เชี่ยวสกุล

Getting off at the train station was a bit chaotic with people in a hurry pushing their way through the crowd. The atmosphere was the same as any other province, less dense and chaotic as Bangkok yet still busy and noisy. I could not wait to get into the monastery. Upon entering the entrance of the monastery, I could see trees lined up on each side of the road. They were high with thick canopies. It was as though we were entering into a forest. After all, Wat Pah Nananachat is called the International Forest Monastery. I felt a sudden change of emotions; the calmness and contentment I felt upon waking up engulfed me once again.

Photo by Mitchai Khankaew

As I have anticipated, I reached in time for breakfast. The only female meditator, Li from China, ushered me into the dining area. Breakfast was the only meal we can have each day so everyone ate as much as they can though we had to keep in mind that we cannot waste food so we were to take only what we can finish. After breakfast, we helped in cleaning the area. Soon after I went to meet the monk to be briefed on the rules of the monastery. It was rather simple, not really rules but a set of daily routine and guidelines. We were to wake up at 3AM to join the morning chant and meditation. Afterwards, we were to clean our designated area. Mine and Li’s was the chapel nearby. Though we swept it every day, there were always lots of fallen leaves around because it is surrounded with trees. We were in a forest after all.

Just some of the food; there were much more! Thais are very generous at giving alms to the temple
Photo by minxianlim

Breakfast area & kitchen
Photo by 余锦盛

The temple we cleaned every morning. I also meditate here.
Photo by 余锦盛

After cleaning we helped prepare breakfast brought by monks from their morning alms round then we cleaned up the kitchen afterwards. I also experienced cleaning the toilets. After all the morning chores, the day is ours to spend. Since it is a monastery that welcomes meditators and not a formal meditation retreat house, there is no rigid schedule nor meditation coaching. I realized that eating only once gave me enough time for other things. It felt extremely liberating to not think about meal time and the confusion that came with it over what to eat.

The first thing I do after breakfast was take a shower. We did a lot of cleaning in the morning so I wanted to freshen up before going to the chapel to meditate. I could not sit for hours and hours meditating so after an hour or so of sitting meditation, I would go for mindful walk though most of the time I would just nap at my kuti. Every afternoon at 4:30PM we were to go back to the kitchen to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea. Soon after, we were to attend the evening chant and meditation. One of my best moments at the temple was watching the rain as it washed over the trees, its droplets create a ripple once it touches a small swamp while holding a hot cup of coffee. In that instant I realized how simple happiness can be.

Inside the temple where I meditate
Photo by Fong Kin Houng

Only Dhamma books were allowed in the temple which we can borrow from their mini library. I also had to surrender my mobile phone. We were to dress in white shirt and white trousers and were not allowed to wear jewelry, make up and perfume. The women’s walled quarter was far off from the men’s, and was as usual surrounded with lots of trees. Walking from there to the temple for the 3AM chant was a scary experience but I made it anyway.

Path towards the women’s quarter
Photo by minxianlim

Women’s kuti
Photo by minxianlim

Main sala or meditation hall
Photo by 余锦盛

In the evening, I found it difficult to sleep because of the noise created by crickets and other forest insects. Sometimes I could hear a sudden thud on the roof of my kuti. I also later read from a blog that the kuti where I stayed actually had a dead person’s ashes on it! So glad I didn’t know while I was there otherwise I would have gone mad! Though it explained why I could not sleep and felt strange in it at night. At first I thought it was because I was uncomfortably sleeping on the floor with just one tiny pillow (not complaining, just wan’t used to it). I read a lot of Dhamma books before bedtime where I developed a deeper understanding and appreciation of Buddhism. I found Buddha’s teachings practical and easier to grasp.

One evening we sat with the Abbot, a German who’s been a monk for over 20 years. In Buddhism, it’s so easy to understand the hierarchy among the monks. Those who have been ordained the longest sits at the top of the structure. During that session, we were allowed to ask questions. One novice asked, “How can you forgive someone who wronged you if you can still feel the pain?” His answer was something I had not heard of or read before. “If you think about forgiveness, you are placing yourself above the person. That is your ego getting in the way. Let go of your ego. Let go of the pain. That person may be suffering himself anyway.

As the day of my departure approached, I found it more and more difficult to leave. I knew I was there to learn about letting go of attachment as one of the tenets of Dhamma but I was growing attached to the place. Probably because ever since I can remember, it was the first time I experienced being so at peace, contented with the life I had even if I only ate once a day. I woke up each morning not thinking about any worries, unfinished work nor the future, there was no internet and constant inundation of information.

Life was at its simplest at the temple. The daily routine may seem boring but on the contrary they made my day stress-free as I didn’t have to fuss over what to do next or how to make my day productive. Going through the routine especially the sweeping of the leaves at the bot (women’s meditation hall) was extremely therapeutic. It made me understand why a lot of self-help books suggest having a morning routine; it makes it easier to go through the rest of the day once our mornings are stress-free.

Photo by Pornthip Sanguanmoo

Photo by 余锦盛

Photo by Fong Kin Houng

Photo by 余锦盛

Photo by 余锦盛

Inside the main sala or meditation hall
Photo by Fong Kin Houng

My experiences during meditation sessions were rather too personal so I shall not be writing about them. However, I have to say I was not able to empty my mind of any thoughts even for a split second; meditation is not about that so there is no need to pressure yourself into achieving such a state. I struggled at first but as the day progressed I began to feel at ease. At the temple, all the negative emotions I was feeling gradually disappeared. Even past painful memories that still hurt whenever I remember them didn’t hurt anymore no matter how I tried to provoke myself into feeling the pain.

My experiences at the monastery were one of the best I’ve ever had; the emotions it made me feel, the stories shared with fellow meditators, and the opportunity to live in a forest. It was the only time in my life when the past and the future didn’t matter at all and I wished that feeling will stay as long as I live. Unfortunately, things are always different in reality, though what I felt at the temple were also real they just didn’t stay that way. Still, I am forever grateful that I experienced how it felt.

Wat Pah Nanachat (Wat = monastery, pah = forest, nanachat = international) was founded by Ajahn Chah to enable foreigners who do not speak Thai to enter into monastic life. Most of the monks at the monastery are foreigners. The monastery practices Theravada Forest Tradition.

P.S. I lost all my photos of the monastery so I used other’s photos instead. Lesson learned, always have a backup.

21 days self-love challenge

Tomorrow is the day when love is celebrated across the globe, Valentine’s Day. Regardless of its historical accounts, Valentine’s Day as we practice it in modern time is a day for couples or for people with someone to love; so much so that it has become the day when roses and chocolates get so expensive. Those who are single often joke that they’d join the firing squad because they don’t have someone to spend it with. For me, I want to celebrate Valentine’s day this year differently.

Few days ago, I collapsed after jogging for less than 15 minutes and a week after I was down with fever and body aches. I realized I’ve been living an extremely unhealthy lifestyle and needed to look after myself better. According to one of my favorite books, it takes 21 days to create neuro-pathways that develop a habit. So I shall call this exercise the 21 days self-love challenge where each day I would devote 2 hours for self-nourishment, which is 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening. If you’re up for the same challenge, join me! It will be fun sharing our experiences.

Once upon a time in #Biliran #Sambawan

A photo posted by Mary Antonette H. Abello (@mhabello) on

Here’s how I will schedule my day but of course you can start at a time of your choosing.

6:00AM – wake up time, drink ¼ cup pure calamansi juice (strictly no water or it becomes acidic)
6:15 AM – sit for 15-minutes meditation
6:30 AM – yoga for 30 minutes
7:00 AM – my normal day can begin (shower, coffee, breakfast, etc)

Throughout the day, I will also make sure to drink a lot of water, pause for a quick 5-minute meditation whenever I feel the need for a break and increase my vegetables and fruit intake.

My evening self-love routine will start at 9PM because I want to sleep by 10PM; that will give me 8 hours of sleep.

9:00PM – gadgets away, read a book with warm milk or chamomile tea
9:45PM – sit for 15-minutes meditation
10:00 – lights out, zzzzzzzz

It’s a pretty simple morning and evening routine, really, but it will surely take much discipline to follow. I know I will regret not doing it and my alter ego is not very kind. So fingers-crossed, tomorrow is a new beginning and if there will come a day that I’d fail, I’ll just start back again. Join me! Join me!

Loss and Grief

I almost forgot how it feels to lose someone I love to death until my uncle’s untimely demise last December. It was all too sudden. He was still physically fit at 78 and was even able to drive around although he was probably already feeling sick but kept it hidden from the family. It would have been so typical of him, someone who doesn’t wanna waste time in a hospital bed. Whenever we had a family outing, he was notable for hurrying all of us to go home right after we finished eating even though some of us haven’t started swimming yet. He just wanted to be home.

The day before he died I was happy to see a video uploaded by my cousin on Facebook of him opening his eyes for the first time after several days. We all took it as a positive sign. I thought I would still be able to see him well and kicking with all his jokes. Past midnight I woke up and checked Facebook only to find he was gone. I would never see him with his toothless smile ever again.

My cousin suggested we make a slideshow of his photos. Being the one with the technical know-how, I was tasked to produce the video. I checked all the photo folders in my external drive, searched for his photos in all my cousins’ Facebook posts only to realise all of us don’t have much photos of him. We don’t have even a single proper solo photo to frame and place above his casket. We ended up framing a photo when he was younger, probably 40 years old. It was because he didn’t want to be pictured so all we have are photos of him sandwiched in a crowd, many of which he wasn’t even looking at the camera. Now I don’t dread people who post too much selfies that much anymore.

“Come stop your crying it will be alright,” I was unto the first few slides but my tears couldn’t stop falling. “You’ll be in my heart, from this day on now and forevermore…” I looked back on those opportunities I missed when I could have visited him. I realised we didn’t really have that much memories spent together but that doesn’t mean I loved him less. He was always in my heart, I was always fond of him, I just don’t know why I didn’t exert that much effort to spend more time with him. The last time I saw him he asked for a Christmas gift and I just answered him, “Yong it’s too early. Christmas is still far away”. Had I known that I won’t see him ever again, I would have given him all the cash I had at hand then.

You see, regrets are futile. It will never bring back missed chances. It will never bring back our loved ones. I remember about 5 years ago, I was struck with the thought that our elders are getting too old and that they may leave us soon. So I began to take lots of photos of them with my DSLR. The sad thing is my uncle, being himself, evaded my camera so much that I never found the right timing or angle. I thought there will be many more chances to capture him but I failed. And I also failed at making sure he felt how much I cared about him.

Since high school, I tried to live by the saying “never leave words unsaid and things undone” and “roses mean nothing at deathbed”. Somehow, I was good at executing these words to my friends maybe because I knew they are in my life only temporarily; our paths will cross and then they will move on with their career or marriage and I may not see them for years. On the contrary my family is always there no matter what happens, or so I thought.

Christmas 2015 was a very sad moment for our family but as the new year begin, my uncle left us with a valuable lesson and that is to always make the most of the time we have with our loved ones. We are a united family but my uncle’s death bound us even more. It’s still difficult to move past this grief but I will make sure that it doesn’t cripple me from appreciating those that are still alive.